He was born and raised in communist Albania, made a daring escape for freedom, learned English in the United States and eventually earned a law degree, although he does not practice law in Connecticut. Peter Lumaj is a Republican candidate for governor, an unapologetic supporter of Donald Trump at a time most GOP candidates for governor duck that embrace for fear of antagonizing anti-Trump electors. But in a large Republican primary field it appears Lumaj’s conservative credentials could very well make him a threat, under the right circumstances, to be the GOP standard bearer in the general election, a disquieting notion for moderate Republican operatives seeking to reclaim the governor’s office and a potential delight to Democrats hoping to cling to the seat in this schizophrenic gubernatorial cycle.
Three months from a Republican convention, with no clear-cut front runner for the nomination, most GOP operatives maintain that Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst and Lumaj, piling up the most conservative support, are positioned for the most delegate action. It’s unclear if anyone, however, will crack the 50 percent required for the endorsement. That does not mean others will not reach the 15 percent delegate threshold, or petition onto the ballot, to land an August primary spot. Bridgeport resident David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, in an exploratory stage, are among other high-profile candidates who could appear on the primary ballot.
Now let’s say when it all shakes out the GOP August primary fields five or six candidates. The GOP moderate vote under that scenario will be carved up among several candidates. The most conservative GOP electors tend to gravitate to primaries, especially if inspired by one of their own. That’s where Lumaj comes in. Judging by his conservative bent, delegate support and endorsements from some of the most conservative pols in Connecticut, Lumaj now becomes a relevant factor in a primary whose winner could prevail with 25 to 30 percent of the vote in a crowded field.
The possibility of Lumaj emerging from a packed primary frays the nerve endings of some GOP leaders who fear he’s not well positioned to reach unaffiliated general election voters who decide statewide races. He’s far too Trumpish, they say, in demeanor and messaging, something Democratic pols will pounce on. Trump lost Connecticut by 13 points to Hillary Clinton and judging by recent polling his standing isn’t any better.
Lumaj’s supporters, however, say his message powerwashing the Hartford bureaucracy and eliminating the personal income tax among earners of less than $100,000 has broader appeal. Republicans also assert Democratic incumbent Dan Malloy who’s not seeking reelection is less popular in the state than Trump. Either way, Trump and Malloy are not on the ballot.
Key for Lumaj is qualifying for Connecticut’s Citizens Election Program of publicly funded raises that allows for roughly $1.4 million in a primary coupled with $250,000 raised in small donor qualifying contributions. Top-tier GOP candidates for governor appear well on their way toward qualifying for a grant.
Lumaj campaign manager Brock Weber says they will get there likely at the completion of the next financial reporting period ending March. Public grants, upon approval, are parceled out by the State Elections Enforcement Commission shortly after the respective party conventions in May.
“We’re in a good position,” says Weber. “Pete has a strong base of conservative support and name recognition among the delegates. Primary voters are conservative and we think the conservative wing has consolidated around Pete’s candidacy. We have a viable path for governor.”
Lumaj was the GOP candidate for Connecticut Secretary of the State in 2014. After a competitive race in which he lost to incumbent Democrat Denise Merrill he continued to build relationships with core conservative support that serves as his base in the gubernatorial campaign.
As the Lumaj threat sinks in with other GOP candidates the rhetoric may kick up challenging his credentials to win a general election given his unabashed support of Trump. One potential area of ammunition for opponents is his geographic disconnection to the state. He lives in Fairfield, has a law practice in The Bronx, New York, but is not licensed to practice law in Connecticut. So much for his local business credentials that he lauds on the campaign trail. But will conservative primary voters care about that?
So Lumaj is definitely in play in this primary process.
As for the Democratic guber race, that’s just as screwy with no clear-cut frontrunner. The governor’s race on both sides will be wide open for quite some time.
And riding on this election cycle is also control of the state legislature.